CIRS Blog about Rural California

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Field crop acreages are declining across the state, as water shortages and uncertainties continue to challenge California growers. Water scarcity has forced farmers to fallow land and sacrifice thirsty annual crops for more drought-tolerant perennials.

According to a recent USDA National Agriculture Statistics Survey (NASS) report, acreages are shrinking for several major field crops. Corn, sunflower, rice and cotton are among the victims of this historic drought. California growers planted 430,000 acres of corn this year, 17 percent less than the 520,000 acres planted in 2014. Sunflower acreage has dropped by 20 percent, with 35,000 acres planted this year, compared to 44,000 acres in 2014.

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California recently took action to protect some of the state’s most threatened agricultural lands by investing in conservation easements and land use planning. These tools have been used for many years by land trusts and local governments to permanently protect farmland from development.

But for the first time the state is focusing its farmland conservation efforts to meet its climate change objectives.

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The latest episode of the Thrive podcast takes a close look at the ground beneath our feet. Soil, on which terrestrial life depends, is often ignored precisely because it is everywhere and yet invisible. Healthy soils contribute so much to human well-being, from nutritious food to clean water, and yet the soils of more than a fifth of all cropland, pasture, forest and woodland are degraded to some extent. Degraded soils, apart from being unable to meet the needs of the people who depend on them, also emit large amounts of greenhouse gasses, contributing to climate change.

How, then, can we best restore degraded soils? Sessions at Global Soil Week 2015 in Berlin, co-organized by the Water, Land and Ecosystems research program of CGIAR, provided a platform for people to share different approaches, each of which has something to offer.

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Last month, the USDA announced its plan to invest an additional $21 million of Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) funds to support on-farm water conservation efforts in severely drought-stricken areas. The investment will expand financial and technical assistance to crop and livestock producers in eight states, including California, in an effort to promote practices that conserve water and build soil health.

Administered by the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), EQIP supports on-farm conservation improvements through financial cost-sharing and technical assistance to growers. Over $27 million of FY 2015 EQIP funding is already targeted toward drought management practices in California. The additional funding will direct EQIP allocations to areas experiencing exceptional or extreme drought conditions, and focus on conservation practices that help farmers cope with drought, such as improving irrigation efficiency, implementing prescribed grazing, and building soil health through cover crops and reduced tillage. NRCS aims to both improve on-farm water use efficiency and also contribute to the long term resilience of crop, pasture, and rangelands against drought.

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California Governor Jerry Brown has always been ahead of the curve on environmental sustainability.

 

During his first term as governor in the 1970s, he authorized a first-ever tax incentive for rooftop solar and rolled back a tax break for oil companies.

 

He helped make water conservation a way of life during the 1976-77 drought, a California ethos that largely persists to this day.

Now in his fourth (and final) term in office, Governor Brown has an opportunity to round out this impressive environmental résumé: he can transform California into a climate-friendly farming pioneer.

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Soil-profile art is not akin to classic paintings with themes; rather, it resembles abstract art: and if you are used to thinking of soil as dirt, which is customary in our society, you are not keyed to find beauty in it.”  Hans Jenny, 1984

 

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Why soils?

2015 has been designated the International Year of Soils by the United Nations.  This designation has been embraced in the United States by the Department of Agriculture, the Soil Science Society of America and others. Many readers may be asking, “why?” This article will serve as an introduction to the topic and CIRS will post monthly submissions by experts on the particular value of soils. Our approach will focus on the rural but we will not limit our discussion to rural regions. There are many rich and productive soils being used in urban areas to sustain communities by providing space to grow food. And food production is our concern. Soil is the foundation of civilization and has been the key to human development over the past 13,000 years.

 

In this series of posts we will discuss soil formation, ecosystem functions of soil, soil loss, the economic value of soil, soils on pasture land, soils in crop production, soil and water, the politics of soil, soil and food security and carbon sequestration in soils. Expect a diverse and well regarded group of writers and look for them here the last Monday of every month.

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The USDA’s climate change efforts are underway. Climate change is now officially embedded in the Department’s strategic goals, one of which seeks to make forests and working lands “more resilient to climate change." A 2011 Departmental Regulation requires USDA agencies to consider climate change impacts when making long-term planning decisions.

Meanwhile, USDA spending on climate change-related actions has grown in recent years – during FY 2013, USDA says it budgeted approximately $186 million across six of its agencies for climate change related research, outreach, and financial incentives.

USDA and the federal government have come a long way in starting to address the realities of climate change. But until the Department shifts its focus to existing, ‘shovel-ready,' sustainable agriculture solutions to climate change, we will not achieve the level of change that is needed.

Inordinate Focus on Biomass and Biorefineries

Over half of the $186 million in USDA’s FY 2013 climate change dollars were allocated to renewable energy programs —specifically biomass research and development.

According to a recent report, $88 million, or 47% of the USDA’s total climate change budget, went to just two biomass and biorefinery research programs. These programs seek to develop technologies for industrial-scale conversion of agricultural and forestry materials and by-products for fuels and electricity generation.

The inordinate focus of climate change funds on these projects—which will likely benefit only large agri-business interests, and few of them in California—is disappointing. Rather than throwing more millions into technology development, USDA should instead be focusing its efforts on ways to strengthen the resilience of all farmers and ranchers while also achieving on-farm greenhouse gas reductions.

By contrast, financial incentives for farmers to install renewable energy or improve energy efficiencies through the Rural Energy for America (REAP) program amounted to less than $13 million (7 percent).

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Climate change is threatening several of California’s most valuable crops. Recent studies suggest that warmer temperatures, and the associated reduced winter chilling period, could render California’s climate unsuitable for growing a variety of fruits and nuts. Insufficient winter ‘chill hours,’ defined as the cumulative number of hours below 45 degrees Fahrenheit, can disrupt pollination, delay flowering, lower yield, and reduce fruit quality. California orchards are predicted to experience less than 500 chill hours per winter by the end of the 21st century, which will impacts the yields of walnuts, pistachios, apples, pears, and stone fruits like cherries, apricots, nectarines, peaches, and plums.

Courtesy of UC Davis

Courtesy of UC Davis

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Despite producing mixed results for sustainable agriculture interests, President Obama’s 2015 budget request is an encouraging sign that the federal government is getting serious about climate change, and particularly about adapting to its impacts.

The President’s proposal includes a $1 billion dollar Climate Resilience Fund, which is intended to strengthen preparedness of states and communities for increasingly extreme weather like floods, droughts, and wildfires. The fund would support investment in research, technologies, and infrastructure across numerous agencies and sectors, including agriculture.

Of course, we need not look far to find proof of the urgent need for such an initiative.

Word of the fund first came out in February, when Obama met with growers and ranchers in the San Joaquin Valley, the heart of drought-stricken California. While touring the farm of Joe and Maria Del Bosque, who have fallowed their melon fields due to water shortages, the President emphasized the role federal support could play in alleviating drought impacts and preparing for the future.

“A changing climate means that weather-related disasters like droughts, wildfires, storms, and floods are potentially going to be costlier,” he noted, “And they’re going to be harsher.”

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California’s drought has moved far beyond “severe,” and is making national and international headlines because of its far-reaching impacts. Most areas of the state are officially in “extreme” drought, with key coastal regions and agricultural areas in the Central Valley experiencing “exceptional” drought conditions. Political leaders scrambled to pass legislative relief packages as it became clear that the state would have another unusually dry winter. State and local officials have asked residents to reduce water use in homes and businesses. Meanwhile, major state and federal water projects have completely shut off water deliveries to already parched urban areas and agricultural agencies due to inadequate supply.

CAWater1CAWater2

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The California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) recently released a new report outlining recommendations for agriculture’s ongoing adaptation to climate change. The report was based in large part on the input of a Climate Change Consortium comprised of stakeholders from the California agriculture community, including the California Climate and Agriculture Network (CalCAN).

In a related and broader effort, the California Natural Resources Agency is preparing to release an update to their 2009 Climate Adaptation Strategy, which covers several sectors including agriculture. They are conducting a series of public workshops to gain public input on the updates; a schedule can be found here.

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The University of California magazine California Agriculture recently published a report that measured soil carbon levels in three perennial cropping systems across Northern California. This study, which was funded by the USDA, brings California one step closer to realizing programs for agriculture that could incentivize sustainable soil management practices and provide financial benefits to farmers.

With a focus on the lesser-understood “high-value specialty perennial crops,” such as walnuts, almonds and wine grapes, researchers in the study sought to develop baseline soil carbon estimates for a variety of agricultural land types and management systems. They gathered data by implementing long-term monitoring networks in perennial crop soils, using a research methodology that could serve as a model for future carbon storage studies.

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The California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA) released earlier this month a unique report on the effects of climate change that the state is experiencing now.  The report comes as a recent public opinion poll finds a record number of Californians want immediate state action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Many climate science reports project into the future what we may experience as greenhouse gases accumulate and heat up our planet.  Such studies are critical to our understanding of climate change, but can make its impacts feel far and distant from our day-to-day.

But the most recent CalEPA report documents current climate change impacts that Californians are living with now. And the news has implications for all of us and especially for farmers and ranchers who are among the first to feel the effects of a changing climate.

Wildfires are increasing in intensity and frequency. Since 1950, annual acreage burned in wildfires statewide has been increasing.  The state’s three largest fire years occurred in the last ten years.

 

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Although Aunt Mabel’s Christmas trifle might top your list of current food concerns, there are a few other things about U.S. food and agriculture worth considering as you look back on 2012, and forward to 2013:

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The future outlook for agriculture is bright. Food production will have to roughly double by 2050 in order to meet population projections. And if we look where much of that growth is expected to occur–Asia–we know that California farmers and ranchers will have an excellent opportunity to meet the new demand. But there will be challenges, too, as increased food production will have to occur with diminishing arable land suitable for farming, pressures on water quality and availability, potential shortages of mineral inputs, and climate change.

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By Rich Rominger and Renata Brillinger

Food and farming is a big part of California’s identity. After all, the state produces 400 different crops and livestock products and provides more than half of the U.S. supply of fruits, vegetables and nuts and is the country’s leading dairy supplier. Many agricultural landscapes pervade California culture — cattle grazing among oak woodlands; vineyards splashing fall colors; almond orchards blooming pink in spring; vast rows of tomatoes, strawberries and lettuce, and more.

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by Gail Wadsworth and Vallerye Mosquera

The California Institute for Rural Studies, University of California, Davis and the Organización de Trabajadores Agrícolas de California recently completed a collaborative research project that focused on identifying the residential and community factors related to heat stress for farmworkers living in Stockton, California and the surrounding region. The goal of this research was to create a pilot tool for assessing community and residential site factors (i.e., those factors to which they are exposed outside of the agricultural work environment) that can exacerbate farmworkers’ exposure to heat and increase their risk of heat-related illness. Photo_1web

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This year, California’s long-anticipated cap-and-trade program goes into effect. The ground was laid for the program in 2006 when Governor Schwarzenegger signed into law AB 32, the Global Warming Solutions Act, the country’s most comprehensive climate protection policy. Under the law, California will reduce its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.

After much debate, legal challenge and a ballot measure attempting to stop it, beginning this year the first steps of implementing cap-and-trade will get underway with full implementation beginning in January 2013.

Under cap-and-trade the largest polluters of GHGs are required to “cap” and subsequently reduce their GHG emissions through a combination of renewable energy production, energy efficiency and related measures. Alternatively, polluters can partially meet their obligations by purchasing additional “allowances” (aka permits to emit GHGs) or by buying “offset credits” on the carbon market from other entities that are voluntarily reducing their GHG emissions.

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